Ukraine’s Language Law in Questions and Answers

April 25, 2019
On April 25th Ukraine’s Parliament adopted the Law “On Functioning of Ukrainian Language as a State Language”. Here we explain the key provisions of the law in questions and answers.
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Why Is the Law Needed?

In Tsarist Russia and Soviet Union Ukrainian language suffered from numerous persecutions. It was banned from public use between 1876 and 1905.

After a brief liberal period (Ukraine’s short independence in 1917-1920, and then brief cultural renaissance in 1920s) it suffered from long decades of Soviet “linguicide”.

The law gives incentives to Ukrainian language after centuries of "linguicide"

Key writers and other representatives of Ukrainian culture were executed; their works were banned; Ukrainian was artificially made closer to Russian in official dictionaries, in universities and at schools; Ukrainian schools were much less widespread than Russian schools, especially in the big cities.

After the independence of 1991, Ukrainian language became Ukraine’s state (national) language, according to the country’s constitution. However, centuries of persecution left its traces: de facto Russian language still dominates in Ukraine, especially in the big cities.

The law is needed to create more incentives for the development of the Ukrainian language, make it more visible and more practiced, and to reach more parity with the Russian language in the public use.

Will Russian speakers be able to speak Russian language?

Of course. According to article 2 p. 2, “the scope of this law does not cover the areas of private communication and religious worship”.

Russian and other languages will be freely used as before.

Furthermore, although Ukrainian is defined as the language of services, article 30 p. 3 says that “upon the demand of a client, services provided to him / personally can be also done in another language, acceptable for the parties”.

The same is valid for medical services. Art 33 p. 2 says that medical service to a client can be provided in another language demanded by the client and acceptable for the parties.

Will speakers of other languages be able to speak their languages?

Of course. The same applies to speakers of other languages.

Will print media in Russian language close?

No. The law only demands for print media in Russian (newspapers, magazines etc) to have a version in Ukrainian, with the same number of copies and similar content. Media can continue making content in Russian, but they should also have a version in Ukrainian.

Media in Russian will continue to publish in Russian, but will also need to publish Ukrainian versions of their content

Will Russian-language print media disappear from retail?

No. The law demands from retail distributors to have “at least 50% of titles of print media” in Ukrainian. Most probably the other 50% will be in Russian (except regions in which other languages are widely spoken).

The law will ensure 50% of Ukrainian print media in retail

Until recently majority of print media in retail were still in Russian. The law will balance the situation making presence of Ukrainian at least as visible as that of Russian.

Does the law make exemptions for print media in English?

Yes. According to Art 25, p. 5, print media in English are exempt from the requirement to publish also in Ukrainian.

The law creates exemptions for media in English and other EU languages

Does the law make exemptions for print media in other EU languages?

Yes. The same Art 25, p. 5 makes the exemption for other EU languages. This means that print media in Hungarian, Romanian, Greek or other EU language can be printed and distributed without Ukrainian versions.

Does the law make exemptions for print media in Crimean Tatar or autochthone languages?

Yes, the same exemption is valid for languages of autochthone ethnicities, including Crimean Tatars, Karaits, Krymchaks, and Azov Greeks.

The law creates exemptions for media in Crimean Tatar and other autochthone languages

What about online media?

The law obliges online media published in other languages to have a Ukrainian version. The version in Ukrainian should open online as a default option.

However, this norm does not apply to online versions of media mentioned in Art 25 p. 5, i.e. media in English or other EU languages, and languages of autochthone people (including Crimean Tatars).

What about public events?

Article 29 regulates public events. Article 29 p. 1 says that Ukrainian is the language of public events.

However, the article specifies that “public events” in this law refer to events organized (fully or partially) by the state authorities or institutions, local self-governance bodies, companies owned by state / local community or having state / local community as a shareholder. It does not apply to events organized by private entities.

Also, this provision does not apply to “events organized for a limited number of people, or organized specifically for foreigners or people without citizenship”.

What about cinema?

The law demands from Ukrainian movies to be in Ukrainian; if characters speak in other languages, they should be dubbed or subtitled in Ukrainian. No more than 10% of speech in a movie created in Ukraine can be in another language.

As for foreign movies, they should be dubbed in Ukrainian. Some can be broadcasted in their original language with Ukrainian subtitles – but not more than 10% of all movies in a given film theatre. Movies can be broadcast in original language during festivals, however.

What about books?

50% benchmark, which is valid for print media, is also valid in the book sector. According to article 26, a publishing house should publish at least 50% of its books in Ukrainian. A bookstore should have at least 50% of its books in Ukrainian.

At least 50% of books published or distributed should be in Ukrainian

Again, as with print media, this norm can ensure a parity between Ukrainian and other languages (including Russian).

The article provides exemptions for specialized bookstores selling books in EU languages or languages of autochthone ethnicities, as well as bookstores specializing in language learning.

What about education?

Ukrainian is defined as the language of education.

However, the law gives a right to representatives of national minorities to have education in their languages at pre-school and primary school stages.

It also gives a right to representatives of autochthone ethnicities to have education in their languages at pre-school and primary and secondary school stages. Both representatives of national minorities and autochthone ethnicities have a right to learn their languages at schools or national cultural societies.

Norms with regard to education for national minorities and autochthone ethnicities are similar to Ukraine's law On Education

One or several subjects can be taught in English or other EU languages.

Scientific publications should be published in Ukrainian, English or other EU languages. Public scientific events can be Ukrainian or English; it can be another language if an event is related to this language or culture.

Volodymyr Yermolenko
Editor in chief of